MSS-016-The History behind the Geography

Episode 016-July 15, 2014

This episode’s ‘saintly’ language tip is the result of a listener email and fits well with today’s main segment which will cover the topic of the geography of the land in which we find our ancestors. Many genealogists, beginners and otherwise, have difficulty distinguishing the geographical divisions especially when it comes to entering this information into one’s database. So with the help of Suzanne Sommerville of the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan, we will trace the evolution of place names throughout history in Nouvelle France and beyond.

Language Tip #16-Saint vs Sainte, E’s & Hyphens

John the Baptist

John the Baptist by Bartolomeo Veneto, 16th century

Camille wrote in with a question: Maybe you could address the word ‘saint’ in a podcast. Which is the correct way to write ‘saint’ in French? Depending on the source, it could be Sainte, St., Ste., St, or Ste-. I hope I’m not the only one confused. Thank you.

We all know that Camille is not the only person to be confused by this. But what we’re really talking about here are two separate issues: whether or not to use an E, and whether to use a period, a hyphen, or neither. Let’s start with the E first.

St. or Ste.?

Back in episode one, we discussed how nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine. An adjective that describes a feminine noun indicates the gender with the placement of an E at the end. So the adjective for ‘small’ when describing a boy would be petit, but for a girl it would be petite. So the same thing applies here to the word ‘saint.’ When the saint is a male, we use ‘saint.’ When the saint is a female, we use ‘sainte.’ The abbreviations follow the same pattern: St. for a male saint; Ste. for a female saint. So we have St. Joseph, but Ste. Marie. For the most part, the final E indicating gender did not carry over here in America.

Also remember that we do not pronounce the final consonant of a word unless there is an E at the end. So for males, you will not hear the T at the end of ‘saint’ unless it is followed by a name beginning with a vowel, like St. Antoine (called ‘liaison’). You will hear the T in Ste. Marie.


As far as the use of hyphens, I always suggest writing a name exactly the way it appears in the record. Most genealogy programs will allow you to write every single name variation that you find.

Online Indexes

Another problem occurs when looking up names beginning with ‘saint’ in online indexes. The PRDH database writes surnames as one word with the abbreviation and no space. So St. George is written as ‘stgeorge.’ The census indexes for HeritageQuest Online need to be searched by the full name as well as the abbreviations spelled with and without the period. In FamilySearch, you need to search for both the full name and the abbreviated name with a period. The best thing to do before researching a ‘saint’ name in a database is to do a test run. Type the name out with an E and without an E. Try it out with and without periods, hyphens, and spaces. And then make a note of how that particular database handles these surnames for future searches. And remember that French databases and English databases may handle searches very differently.

Send along any questions that you would like to see featured in future Language Tips!!

The History behind the Geography

Suzanne Boivin Sommerville, a member of the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan, joined us for a discussion of the geography of Canada, particularly the historical evolution of place names from the various areas of this vast land.

New France

The settling of New France was due to two things: beaver and souls. The beavers were the economic reason as beaver furs, castor, were highly valued in France. Saving indigenous souls was the religious impetus.

In 1608 when Champlain arrived at what became Québec City, the name Kébec was an Algonquian word that meant “strait.” By the time of Jacques Cartier, the entire territory was known by the Iroquois name Kanada/Kanata, meaning village, and eventually evolved into Canada. So Champlain’s habitation was located in Québec (Iroquoian for ‘village’) located in la Nouvelle France (New France), Canada.

At the time of French settlement, there were no Natives in the area of what would become Québec and Montréal, and only a small Algonquian presence to trade in the area of Trois Rivières.

As the settlers of Champlain’s Québec began their explorations, they headed west, or upriver, on what became the Ottawa River, eventually exploring what became known as the Pays d’en Haut, or Upper Country (upriver), in an effort to befriend and trade with the Natives. After Québec City, a trading center began at Trois Rivières in 1634. The oldest surviving religious records are from Trois Rivières. Then the religious received a charter to evangelize the Natives at a place called Ville Marie on an island with a mountain called Mont Réal in 1642. All of these areas were in a region called la Nouvelle France (New France), Canada.

Indians friendly to the French came down rivers and lakes to the colony to trade when the Iroquois did not block them. Few French traveled to Indian country.

By 1650, Iroquois destroyed and captured Huron/Wendat and other Indians in what is now Ontario or caused them to flee to the Great Lakes area by 1650. The Iroquois continued their aggression.


 Acadie/Acadia on the Atlantic coast had an entirely different history as it was constantly changing hands between the British and the French. Samuel Champlain was there in 1604. By 1620, King James I of England by royal decree extended the territory of Massachusetts to the 48th parallel including all Acadia (l’Acadie). In 1629, one hundred Scottish colonists arrived. In 1632, Acadia was returned to France by the Treaty of St-Germain-en-Laye.

French settlement of Acadia really began about 1636 at Port Royal. By 1650 there were fifty French families established in l’Acadie. In 1667, after the signing of the Treaty of Breda, Acadia was once again returned to France. British citizens lived alongside the French, and more French settlers arrived in 1671 when the first census of Acadia was taken, indicating 68 families and 373 individuals.

In 1713, the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht at the end of Queen Anne’s War resulted in the French ceding Acadia and Newfoundland to the British. Cape Breton (Île-Royale)and Prince Edward Island (Île-St-Jean) remained with the French. L’Acadie then became Nova Scotia.


In Nouvelle France, a land system known as seigneuries was developed. A narrow strip of land bordering the St. Lawrence or another river was granted to a seigneur. His job was to recruit people to settle on and develop his portion of the land. The seigneur was the landlord of those who were granted land.

In 1663, New France became a royal colony.  Because of continuing Iroquois aggression, King Louis XIV decided to send the Carignan-Salière Regiment to subdue the Iroquois. Arriving in 1665, they had completed their task by 1667. Many of them decided to stay.

Up until that time, there had been no settlement on the south and east side of the St. Lawrence River except near Québec City. But now, officers and men of the Carignan Regiment settled on seigneuries in places like Verchères, St. Ours, and Varennes. This created a buffer between the French settlers and both the Iroquois and the English colonies. Seigneuries were also granted elsewhere.

Pays d’en Haut

By 1668 with the Iroquois subdued, trade could now take place with the natives in the Pays d’en Haut. Then in 1673 Marquette and Joliet made their historic journey as far as the Arkansas River, followed by LaSalle who made it almost to the Gulf of Mexico. That entire territory was claimed by New France.

The 1680s-1690s saw more violence which prevented further development.

Issues were resolved by the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701. Agreements were reached between most of the Native nations of the Pays d’en Haut, the east coast Abenaki, and the French.

In the 17th century, trading posts were established at Fort Michilimackinac on the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan and at Baie des Puants, later Green Bay, Wisconsin. Then the French officer Antoine Laumet dit de Lamothe Cadillac was granted permission to establish Fort Ponchartrain, which became the city of Detroit. These and other forts were located in the Pays d’en Haut.

Canada in New France-1703

Map of Canada (New France) in North America 1703

Illinois and Louisiane

By 1695, the Jesuits had established a mission among the Kaskaskia in what is today Kaskaskia, Illinois. Records survive from that date. There was also a settlement at Fort de Chartres. These and other settlements along the Mississippi were located in an area known as Upper Louisiane [correction to podcast]. This area became part of Louisiane in 1717.

Cadillac became the governor of Louisiane with headquarters in Mobile, Alabama, arriving there in 1713. Nouvelle Orléans was not settled until 1718.

The British Period

In 1763, the British took over Canada, and jurisdictions changed. Nouvelle France was called Québec after the main city in the original colony. There was no province of Québec before this time. Settlers on the east side of the Mississippi in lands now controlled by the Protestant British, moved across the river to the Catholic Spanish Louisiana side, resulting in the founding of St. Louis and Ste. Geneviève in modern-day Missouri. In 1774, Great Britain passed the Québec Act which restricted Québec to almost what it is today, not as far north and west, with everything else beyond known as Indian Territory. Detroit, under the jurisdiction of the British, was considered part of, first, Indian Territory (1763 -1774), and then the British Province of Québec.  It was British during the American Revolution.

By 1791, the province of Québec was divided into Lower Canada (located on the lower part of the river closer to the ocean; not including Nova Scotia), later to be called East Canada; the area which is today more or less Ontario became Upper Canada, later to be West Canada. The names East and West Canada came into effect in 1841.

On July 1, 1867, with the Confederation of Canada, the separate provinces of Québec and Ontario are established.

Genealogy Research

Not every village or seigneurie had a church. You sometimes need to look for records in neighboring towns. Priests would sometimes visit homes in villages without a parish church, or visit the missions or forts on the frontiers, perform acts there, and then carry the records back with them to their home parishes or to the one closest to the religious acts. Not all of these records survived.

The records from Fort Ponchartrain (now called Ste. Anne de Detroit) are the ones Suzanne knows best, and they survive from 1704 on, with missionary priests assigned until it became a parish, Ste. Anne du Detroit, around 1718-1722. Original records and transcriptions are on in the Drouin collection. Records from the earliest mission at Baie des Puants (Green Bay, Wisconsin) and Fort Miami (Fort Wayne, Indiana) are gone. Records from Fort St. Joseph (Niles, Michigan) survived in someone’s attic. Although the first pages are missing, records begin about 1720 to 1773, with Father Gibault from the Illinois region visiting twice after 1760. The French at the fort were evacuated by the British in 1780. These records are available in the Drouin collection.

Original early records for Detroit

Ancestry. ca:  Early U.S. French Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1695-1954

  • Under D: Ste-Anne, Autres Registres, 1704-1744 (the original records); and for later years under D: Ste-Anne, 1702 (actually 1744) – 1780 (also original).  Transcriptions are available under different headings.
  • Under S:  St. Joseph de Michigan
  • Under C: Caskaskias (a transcription).  Originals for Kaskaskia are on FamilySearch in the Illinois records, Diocese of Belleville.
  • Under F:  records from several forts
  • Under M: transcriptions for Michilimackinac, first at St. Ignace, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; then at what became Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula about 1715, and by about 1744 the parish of Ste. Anne that was later moved to Mackinac Island under the British in 1780.

Genealogists are often confused about whether or not to hyphenate place names. Suzanne said that hyphenating is a relatively new phenomenon and did not occur in the old records.

Where to Find the History of the Geography
Treaty of St-Germain-en-Laye

Treaty of St-Germain-en-Laye

Great Peace of Montreal

Virtual Museum-The Great Peace of Montreal, 1701 

Videos in both English and French:


There are many wonderful maps of these regions on the internet. Check those on Wikipedia:

There are several maps scattered throughout the FCHSM website, but especially in the Cartographers section.

Maps at Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ)

Parish/Town Guides
  • Parish and Town Guide to the Province of Quebec published by Quintin Publications-has four sections listing parishes in chronological order and in alphabeticqal order by county, patron saint, and town: appears to be out of print; look for it in a library or at the FHL    
  • Reference & Guide Book for Genealogist– published by the American-French Genealogical Society, also has a section listing Catholic churches of New England
  • Guide to Quebec Catholic Parishes and Published Marriage Records by Jeanne Sauve White-lists parishes by diocese and then in chronological order by county; can also be found on  
  • Dictionnaire historique et géographique des paroisses, missions et municipalités de la Province de Québec (Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Parishes . . .) by Hormisdas Magnan. Text in French.

Thank you to Suzanne for taking the time to educate all of us on this important topic.


If you’re in the Detroit, Michigan, area the weekend of July 19-20, check out the home page of their  website for planned events surrounding the 313th anniversary of the founding of Detroit.

How to Contact Maple Stars and Stripes

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